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New program gives special needs kids new experiences

Phil Hansen helps his daughter, Jillian, build strength in her arms as part of the program that pulls special needs children into a challenging gymnastics program. DETROIT LAKES TRIBUNE/Brian Basham2 / 6
Wyatt Willie works out his entire body. DETROIT LAKES TRIBUNE/Brian Basham3 / 6
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Kale Hannahs bounces and giggles as his paraprofessional helps him keep balance. Kale spent nearly the entire hour giggling at new senses and experiences. DETROIT LAKES TRIBUNE/Brian Basham5 / 6
Jaydon Nelson gets help from his teacher as he makes his way down a trampoline. DETROIT LAKES TRIBUNE/Brian Basham6 / 6

A child's eyes have a special way of lighting up the first time they experience something new and exciting, and thanks to a new program that has just been launched in Detroit Lakes, there are several sets of shiny, happy eyes.

TNT Kid's Fitness & Gymnastics out of Fargo is known for helping special needs children jump out of their shells and into the world of fitness through gymnastics. It's been a highly praised program in the F-M area over the past five to six years, but Detroit Lakes and its special needs students have never had a taste of this rumbling, tumbling kind of action. Until now.

Dad on a mission

Detroit Lakes man Phil Hansen is likely best known around these parts for his career in the NFL, but around his house, he's known as dad. His daughter, Jillian, is a seventh grader at Detroit Lakes. She is a non-verbal, special needs child with severe physical limitations.

"The doctor told me when my kid was born that if you don't get your kid's heart rate up, it's a morality issue - she's going to die before a normal kid her age," said Hansen. "My daughter can't run, so it's hard for her to get her physical fitness for the day."

Hansen says he'd heard good things about TNT in Fargo, so one day last year he decided to pop in and check it out. And what he saw, he definitely liked.

"After watching for a while, I asked somebody, 'Is there any way you could come out to Detroit Lakes and do what you're doing there?'"

After Christmas, the company contacted Hansen with the idea that they would, for the first time, be willing to expand into another community. They hadn't done it before, but they were willing to attempt a replication. The catch was it would cost $89,000 to get the program launched in Detroit Lakes.

But Hansen, being involved with the Dakota Medical Foundation, knew a thing or two about fundraising and knew a person or two (or many more) who could help. Before long, he had the money and $6,000 worth of equipment donated.

"So we talked to Minnesota Flyers to see what they could do, we got the school on board and the TNT with the expertise on board," said Hansen.

In a collaborative effort, the Detroit Lakes School District agreed to pay for busing to get the kids to the gymnastics facility; the Minnesota Flyers Gymnastics Board agreed to donate the use of their facility and fundraise on their own to cover the cost.

The plan would be for TNT officials to run the program for one year, training parents, volunteers and school staff on what to do. Then next year, the DL crew will fly solo and maintain the program independently.

It's go-time

Tuesday they stepped and wheeled off the bus one by one in three waves - special needs children from both Detroit Lakes elementary schools, the middle school and the high school.

As the next hour went on, they all took on challenges they had likely never seen before. They contorted their bodies, they worked their cores and hips, they jumped and tumbled and most importantly, they tried.

"We work on the physical, social, emotional and cognitive aspect here," said Nate Hendrickson, chief operating officer at TNT Kid's Fitness. "It isn't just the movement, it's the turn taking, it's the processing information and making sense of it and putting it to work, the willingness to try and taking the 'can't' out of their vocabulary and putting in 'we expect you to try, and when you try these things happen.'"

And what happened for little Jillian Hansen was something that meant a lot to her dad.

"I saw something I'd never seen before - I saw a bead of sweat come down her head," said Hansen. "I had never seen that before, so it was pretty personal for me."

It was a heartwarming moment for a lot of the adults there who got to witness the looks of wonder in the children's faces as they tried new, fun things that challenged them.

"Teachers noticed things coming out in the students as they had fun, even personality wise that they hadn't seen," said Jen Smith, an MFG board member and special education teacher who is working as the coordinator for the program in Detroit Lakes. "I'm watching Elijah on the trampoline right now; he's out of his wheelchair, he's giggling, he's rolling, and all of that is sensory for him. He hasn't felt that, he hasn't experienced that."

"We have seen smiles, more movement. Things they didn't think they could do - they could do it," said Leslie Pladson, occupational therapist at TNT. "One time through and they get the hang of it, and it's just the confidence we've seen that has been amazing."

TNT staff worked hands-on with students Tuesday, encouraging them and teaching the adults around them as they went.

The goal for those adults is to soak up everything they can in the next year so that they have the knowledge to sustain the program both operationally and financially.

"Eventually we'd like to get more kids from DL, kids from Frazee, Waubun, Perham, Pelican Rapids, all those schools on board to bus their kids here for this," said Hansen, who knows while this was a big victory to be able to launch this program in Detroit Lakes, there are still many other kids out there who could benefit from their efforts.

"This is just the start," he said. "This is just a stepping stone."